“This may be hard for you to hear, but…”
Never am I fond of this preface. It is the more subtle, yet just as ominous cousin of “We need to talk.”
But there I was, laying incapacitated on a blue chiropractor’s table with ice-pick pain shooting mercilessly down the left side of my neck. Dr. Marc, a doctor so genuine and friendly I heard him described once as “sunshine walking at you,” was about to hand down an important life lesson.
That level of discomfort was not foreign to me. Since my late teenage years, I have suffered from recurrent episodes of excruciating pain, the kind that put you straight on your ass for two days. They appear once every other month at the most inopportune times, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
I wake up and the pain could be there.
I put on my seatbelt and poof! like a genie it pops up.
I lean in to apologize to my partner Myles for unnecessarily yelling at him and bam, it hits me like a ton of bricks (okay, maybe that one is karmic).
When I finally found yoga, I was thrilled to find something that gave me temporary relief, or at least the mental capacity to not have a panic attack in response to the inability to turn my head side to side. The yoga room became the first place I scurried to when the crick showed up and once I even lived three whole months pain free.
I thought I was cured.
Alas, it kept coming back, persistently trying to send me a message, and I kept running to my backbends.
After much stubborn debate with fellow yoga teachers, including and especially Myles, I finally let go of the egotistical notion that I needed nothing but my yoga practice to keep myself healthy. I decided to see a few professionals. Weeks of trial runs later, I chose to work with Dr. Marc, a chiropractor who toothily grinned and unironically commended me on my exciting occupation—traveling (and starving) yoga teacher.
“I hope my daughters get to travel and see the world like that one day,” he said as he cracked a few ribs back into place.
The next time I saw him, though, he nearly made me cry. He displayed four X-rays and turned off the overhead lights. The first was an image of a healthy cervical spine; the next three were of my not-so-healthy neck, back and hips.
“Before I say anything else, I want you to know this looks worse than it actually is,” he said tenderly.
“No, that’s not me,” I insisted, “That’s not my spine.”
“I know, it’s hard to take in. You’ve got some pretty intense structural damage.”
He pointed to the images and explained that my neck had no natural curvature in it, so the distribution of weight was all wrong—hence those bouts of extreme discomfort, when the neck locks up and says, “Okay, I can’t support your heavy head like this anymore.”
Also, my middle back curved to the right, like a backwards C, caused no doubt by my sacrum, which was dramatically tilted up to the left.
In short, I was a mess.
I stared in disbelief. I rattled off all the possible culprits to the Doc:
“You know, I used to embark on daily hour-long commutes by bike in congested Boston traffic with a 50-pound backpack strapped on.”
“Hey, there was a period in Australia when I was doing Crossfit like six times a week.”
“Wait, I dated this guy once whose mattress springs were dangerously mangled and he refused to sleep over at my place but I really liked him.”
He assured me this misalignment wasn’t my own doing. Rather, it was most likely a genetic inheritance from my mother, whose spinal structure he knew well, as she was one of his patients. Sure, the sedentary lifestyle I used to lead (before the cycling and weight training) didn’t help my case, but I was relieved to know it wasn’t the primary cause.
While I may never have a spine that appears normal, I can certainly be functional. He made me promise to never stop doing yoga—it was the main reason I was able to keep myself relatively well considering the extent of the damage—and asked if I was additionally willing to work with him, to come in for a few adjustments.
Sure, I was. I made an appointment for a week later.
Three days in, I reached down to pet my cat and boom, a sword jabbed into my neck. Acute, fierce, vehement. I immediately drove myself to the next yoga class, but throughout the bending, the raging pain stood its ground.
I rocked up to Dr. Marc’s office shortly after, stiff as a board. He asked me what triggered it this time.
I let out a muffled groan. I had no idea. I never did. I told him I went to yoga at the first sign, as usual, in an attempt to fix it.
And so came the gentle words: “This might be hard for you to hear, but… you have to learn how to rest when this happens. How to be still and not move for a little while.”
He went on to describe this as neurological pain, nothing like a muscular injury that could be soothed with stretching. My neck was telling me that it simply could not perform anymore, which was why it felt like a relentless ice-pick instead of a dull throbbing. So, the answer was not to try to elongate it, to loosen it up, to move it until I won the battle.
The answer was to give my cervical spine a break, maybe lie down for a while.
I needed to ease up.
I arrived home with a cloudy mind. My neck and upper back were slightly better from the work Dr. Marc did, but the stabbing was still there. I gingerly made my way out of the car and into the house, where I took the good doctor’s advice and headed straight for the recliner.
Okay, I’ll give this a shot, I thought. I let my head completely relax, which took all the pressure off my cervical. Wow, that actually felt pretty good. I propped up a David Sedaris book but quickly realized even he and his delightful drollness were distractions. I tossed him aside and listened to it—silence.
No movement, no trying, no yoga, even if for a couple minutes. I just sat there.
My neck thanked me.
Author: Gina Florio
Volunteer Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Futurilla via Flickr